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Uncommon Knowledge

How Tina Fey destroyed Sarah Palin

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

How Tina Fey destroyed the GOP

Can parodies of politicians affect those politicians’ popularity? You betcha! At least that seems to be what happened with Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” in the fall of 2008. Analysis of a nationwide survey of college students from the 2008 campaign reveals that approval of Palin right before the election was cut in half among students who had seen the impersonation compared to those who hadn’t. You might expect this to be the case among Democrats, but it turns out that the negative effect of the impersonation was only significant among self-identified Republicans and independents. As the authors point out, Democrats’ approval of Palin probably couldn’t go much lower, whereas the impersonation seems to have jolted right-leaning individuals.


Baumgartner, J. et al., “The Fey Effect: Young Adults, Political Humor, and Perceptions of Sarah Palin in the 2008 Presidential Election Campaign,” Public Opinion Quarterly (Spring 2012).

Suspicious, powerful minds

Most of us crave at least some degree of power, fame, or wealth. Nevertheless, it can be lonely at the top, and new research helps explain why. People who were put in a high-power mindset--by being asked to think about sentences with power-related words--were subsequently more inclined to attribute selfish motives to someone doing them a favor. The same thing happened when people were asked to contemplate the motives of either a subordinate or a co-worker who offered assistance: Those in the high-power mindset believed the subordinate to have more selfish motives for the same act of kindness. Even among married couples, the spouse who earned more was more likely to believe that the other spouse had selfish motives for acts of kindness and, as a result, was less committed to the relationship.

Inesi, E. et al., “How Power Corrupts Relationships: Cynical Attributions for Others’ Generous Acts,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).


Young kids, old kids, black kids, white kids

When we consider how to allocate our donations to charity, we are inevitably partly motivated by stereotypes about those who will benefit. Results from a new study suggest that potential donors are responsive to both positive and negative stereotypes about race and age--and in ways that can be complex. People were more willing to donate to public school classrooms portrayed as having young black students than those portrayed as having older black students; more willing to donate to young black students than young white students; and more willing to donate to older white students than older black students. For example, when asked to allocate a hypothetical donation across classrooms with different demographics, the average donation was $14.17 for young black classrooms versus $11.26 for older black classrooms, but $12.96 for young white classrooms versus $11.61 for older white classrooms.

Small, D. et al., “An Age Penalty in Racial Preferences,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Winning makes you mean

Conventional wisdom about competition suggests that losers may become angry and aggressive, while those who win can afford to be more gentle and big-hearted. A new study suggests just the opposite. In several experiments with American and French students, researchers found that those who were led to believe they had done better than a competitor on a mundane test were subsequently more aggressive towards the competitor--blasting the competitor with loud noise or putting hot sauce in the competitor’s drink--than those who were led to believe they had done worse. The conclusion: “Watch out when you are the loser.”


Muller, D. et al., “Are People More Aggressive When They Are Worse Off or Better Off Than Others?” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Get curvy!

The next time you need to be creative, try adding a little curvy, free-flowing movement to your routine. Researchers asked people to trace either curvy or jagged lines. Those who traced the curvy lines were more creative in thinking up as many uses of a newspaper as possible within a minute, categorizing ambiguous objects, or solving word-association puzzles. However, tracing curvy lines didn’t help people solve noncreative problems like those found on standardized math tests.

Slepian, M. & Ambady, N., “Fluid Movement and Creativity,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.